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trypaw's avatar

Car has leaking head gasket? More info wanted?

Asked by trypaw (327 points ) July 10th, 2012

Hello.
So my car (1998 Dodge stratus) 149k miles, apparently has a head gasket oil leak. It leaks about 1 qt. per month of oil. I was told by one mechanic that this was the cause of my oil loss, but I am not so sure? The car doesn’t do anything else weird, runs great/doesn’t overheat, no coolant leaks, oil is normal color. The only thing is a slight and I mean very slight bit of white smoke that comes from my hood if I open up my hood, and usually I can only see the smoke at night. Would I be doing any harm running the car if it does have this leak as long as I fill the oil when it gets low? I don’t have the 1k to fix it but I don’t want to damage my engine somehow. Does this sound like a head gasket leak? If it is will it get worse over a long course of time, or slowly. Could this hurt any other area of my car/ ruin it more if I continue to drive? Thanks for your responses! I really need more information on this!

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24 Answers

marinelife's avatar

Here are instructions on how to seal leaking head gaskets with sealant products.

augustlan's avatar

I’ve continued to operate cars with an oil leak in the past, but you must be very vigilant about checking and refilling the oil. If you run the car out of oil, you’ll kill your engine completely. Been there, done that. It’s not good!

dabbler's avatar

Ref: determining whether there really is a head-gasket leak.
Wouldn’t the spark plug be messed up in the leaking cylinder(s) relative to the other cylinders?
And it seems like there would be a compression difference (less) in the cylinder(s) where there is a leak.
And If one went so far as removing the exhaust manifold wouldn’t that show signs of unburned oil?
Are there alternative theories about the oil loss? Are there any apparent leaks to the exterior of the engine, &/or on the ground under the engine?

But if, as you plan, you keep the oil above the fill line, it should keep running.
This assumes the leak(s) doesn’t get worse – which they usually do.
It’s a shame to put oil out the exhaust pipe but while it’s really a minor leaking, the toss-up of that pollution footprint vs the pollution footprint of manufacturing a replacement car or engine can make it sensible to keep it going up to point.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

Unless you have the money to replace the engine or cover the labour costs of replacing the head gasket (which is almost as much) sell your car for as much as you can get immediately.
Believe me, I wish I had been forewarned before the head gasket in my car failed three weeks ago!

trypaw's avatar

Also is there any connection between a leaking head gasket to cause a blown head gasket at all?

Cruiser's avatar

Head bolts do loosen over time and you may buy some time by simply tightening them a ¼ turn or so. Do not over tighten. Some should feel looser than the others. If you want to be official, you can google your engine and find the torque specs for the bolts. Invest $20.00 in a torque wrench…another $10.00 in a socket and extension and have at it. Other wise go whole hog and simply replace the head gasket for around $30.00. Google Felpro and your engine make and year to order the right one. Spend the extra coin on a a one piece gasket.

jerv's avatar

Head gasket failure varies widely with make/model. I drove an ‘87 Corolla on a blown head gasket for two weeks, stopping whenever the temp gauge went above the red into the white, then replaced the head gasket and drove the car for another couple of years before giving it to my father-in-law is still-strong running condition. OTOH, some cars tend to last less than an hour in that condition; my Corsica went quickly.

If it were an oil leak from other places, I’d say no biggy. I lose about a quart a week in my current Corolla just as I did in my first Corolla; some cars just do that. However, as it is from the head gasket, and given the bad luck I have had with American engines all dying in a couple of days from things that a Japanese/German car wouldn’t even notice, I wouldn’t push my luck.

It is possible that I am overly cautions, but I would give it a month tops unless you do something. A $1k replacement may not be needed as there are some things that @marinelife mentioned that will nip the problem in the bud if you act quickly. If left unchecked….. I was lucky enough to always be able to limp the vehicle to die unceremoniously in my driveway, but you may not be so fortunate.

Blown head gaskets start somewhere. They rarely happen suddenly; it’s a process.

trypaw's avatar

So does that mean a leaking head gasket will cause my gasket to blow later on? Or soon? (its been like 3 months)

woodcutter's avatar

If enough water goes into the combustion chamber you will burn up a piston or two and that will be all she wrote. Fixing head gaskets is one of the most single expensive things you can do with an engine short of rebuilding. We had a ‘87 Crown Vic interceptor that had that problem so we used one of those engine rebuilds in a can. And it worked until we put antifreeze mix back in, which would remove the repair clot and the problem returned so, we just put plain water in and it held. Not a permanent fix but as long as it’s during the warm months it will get you by. We eventually paid to fix the problem the right way but it was more than the car was worth. I miss that car.

jerv's avatar

“So does that mean a leaking head gasket will cause my gasket to blow later on? Or soon? (its been like 3 months)”

It varies. I am not familiar enough with Dodges to really say; my experience is with Ford, GM, Toyota, Honda, Subaru, and A2 VWs. Some motors are fragile while others (like my 4A-LC) are pretty tolerant of abuse.

One thing to check though; get a compression test done to get some clue as to the condition of your head gasket. If that is fine then odds are that your leak is elsewhere.

@woodcutter One problem with a blown head gasket on a Crown Vic; which head? That is one thing I love about most four-bangers; unless it’s a Subaru, you only have one.

trypaw's avatar

Well when i took it in to the mechanic, he found the leak and told me what it was and basically I could just drive it as long as the oil level was always o.k. I think I asked if any further damage would happen if I didn’t get it fixed, I believe he said no. He certainly did not mention anything about blowing my gasket either/any risks. (he just basically told me as long as I’m adding oil, just drive) I am just trying to figure out how serious this is. If its just a adding oil every so often issue, I would like to put it off. If I am endangering my car at all by leaving it leak I will fix it right away.

tedd's avatar

I do not recommend driving with a leaky head gasket. Leaks grow in size if left untended. 1 qt per month can quickly become the entirety of the cars oil in a few hours.

Usually leaky/broken head gaskets are indicated by white smoke in your exhaust, though it could/should also be visible when lifting the hood (in many situations at least).

You can drive on it, but every mile you put on it with a leaking gasket is a mile that is damaging your engine. The leak is allowing your coolant into the engine (albeit in small quantities thus far from the sounds of it). This will do irreparable damage if allowed to continue. It also puts oil in your coolant system, which can be very expensive to flush once it’s in there.

Short answer, I wouldn’t dick around with this. If you know an automotively inclined person it isn’t usually that hard of a fix job (though I would only trust them if you are 100% confident in their abilities, if messed up it could be worse than when you started). The repair cost on this is most definitely cheaper than the alternatives.

Every mile you drive with that leak is shortening the lifespan of that engine.. just keep that in mind.

trypaw's avatar

Well all of that kinda scares me @tedd I wasn’t told any of this I told 3 different auto places (long story short) about it and none said anything about harming my car, Just it might get bigger or more leaky after awhile. But right now it’s not worth fixing. Wouldn’t have someone told me about this? They all told me not to fix it or it was my choice if I didn’t want to keep filling the oil, but otherwise I could drive. And my coolant isn’t leaking in my oil from what I see, nor is my oil foamy or weird colored. No smoke from exhaust, just from behind the engine. So please help me I really dont know what to do.

tedd's avatar

@trypaw Honestly I’m not 100% positive that you have a leaky head gasket, as in my experience you notice it in the exhaust first and foremost. It would be in line with seeing white smoke when lifting the hood, and it would also be in line with the rough starts you listed in your other thread a week or two back. So as far as it being a leaky head gasket, I’m taking your mechanics at their word and knowledge (especially if you’ve had 3 of them pop the hood and come to the same conclusion).

Now don’t get me wrong, with the leaky head gasket your engine isn’t likely to just up and explode on you any day now. I would liken the damage it’s doing to your engine to smoking. If you smoke a pack a day your entire life, you’ll probably get cancer and die by 40. If you’re smoking a single cigarette a day your entire life, your odds are better, and so on and so forth all the way up to you not smoking at all and it having no effect. If it’s a tiny leak, it may really make no difference in the life span of the engine, but any leak of a non-oil fluid into oil-only areas is definitely going to do some level of damage.

As I also mentioned, in my experience the leaks grow in size over time. You’ll know for sure if it does, because the white smoke I mentioned in your exhaust will become extremely evident and the car will drive like crap. If this happens stop driving the car immediately (pull over on the side of the road if need be), cuz you could seize (blow up) your engine.

If funds are short, you could put this off.. But I wouldn’t recommend it. The head gasket parts should be under $100. The labor can take a while, but it’s not difficult at all.

(the white smoke you see is the coolant being burned up in your engine. Generally this is seen from the exhaust, as it is escaping your engine through said system. If coolant is getting into your oil, the reverse is also happening. This is less of an issue… a gummed up coolant system sucks but is more workable than a broken engine.)

trypaw's avatar

Thanks so much for your answer @tedd. I actually took it to three places but only one place popped my hood the other two I just asked for suggestions. I am going to try a different place and have them take a look. Maybe I’m getting the name wrong? It could have been cylinder gasket leak. I just know that my engine has a leak on something. But I don’t get any symptoms besides mild oil loss and mild engine smoking. I am hoping it isn’t my actual head gasket and maybe the mechanic wasn’t right. Does it sound more like another problem rather than a leaky head gasket? Shouldn’t something else be happening with my car?

tedd's avatar

@trypaw Your head gasket is your cylinder gasket. A lot of things could be happening with your car because of a leaky head gasket. Essentially, your motor needs oil to lubricate itself, gas/air to fuel itself, and coolant/water to cool itself. If any of those three mix though it can cause damage (of varying intensity) to your engine. The gasket keeps all of them separated. If the gasket is leaking it could be causing various problems, depending on what’s leaking into where. If coolant and/or oil are getting into your fuel/air mix, then it will cause the car to misfire and drive like crap. This also tends to give off the smoke we spoke of earlier, and in this case it would almost certainly be out of the tailpipe. If coolant or gas are getting into the lubricant it could cause the car to drive rougher and misfire, it could create smoke. If something other than coolant is getting into your coolant system it will start causing the car to overheat, etc. There’s really just a plethora of possibilities.

Like I said, I’m not convinced it’s a head gasket. After several months of driving on it I would expect the leak to grow and cause more issues. But it definitely could be the gasket. It could also be a host of other things. Unfortunately you really don’t know until you pop the hood and start digging around.

Bottom line, have another mechanic (or even two more) look at it and tell you what they think. If it is the gasket get it taken care of asap.

dabbler's avatar

@tedd “not convinced it’s a head gasket” Because there is smoke under the hood I was wondering about the valve-cover gasket. You’d lose some oil and it drips down the hot engine block and you get some smoke, but it’s far less of a worry than a head gasket.
If there is a head-gasket leak that lets anything out of the engine block you should be able to see the dripping, no?

@trypaw When the smoke is seen behind the car, is it clear it’s coming from the tailpipe? If not it could be coming from the engine compartment and wafting below and behind the car as you drive. Have a friend watch from the curb as you drive by to see if the smoke definitely comes from the tailpipe.
If it’s a valve-cover gasket problem that is a lot easier, and cheaper, to fix.

woodcutter's avatar

@jerv I never knew which side it was they replaced both. Since it was a 351 Windsor interceptor it automatically makes it higher dollar repair, as opposed to the 350 civilian engine.

jerv's avatar

@dabbler I think almost every vehicle I’ve ever owned had a valve cover leak. Then again, after 150–240k miles over 12–25 years, there is usually enough grime on the engine to effectively seal it.
As for the two I had that leaked coolant, neither survived long enough to track down the issue. The V6 Aerostar lost the right bank and, due to other issues, was cheaper to replace than to repair (no loss since it only cost $250), while the Corsica only showed symptoms for a day and a half before spewing nearly a gallon of coolant out the tailpipe when the mechanic attempted to start it.

trypaw's avatar

Just to let everyone know. It is a leaking head gasket. My Head is eternally leaking oil. I am going to try and save up to get it fixed. In the mean time is it ok to drive at least?

Brian1946's avatar

—@trypaw

My Head is eternally leaking oil.

I used to have that problem when I used Brylcreem on my hair. ;-)

dabbler's avatar

Keep in mind that it could get worse fast, the gasket isn’t designed to tolerate the wear of anything flowing where it shouldn’t. If that happens you have to shut it down immediately and park it and be lucky or it will cost you a lot more to fix after that. Possibly the best you could hope for it making a lot of smoke as oil streams down the engine block. That could cost you an air-pollution ticket.

jerv's avatar

Again, variable. It might be like my aforementioned Corolla and last until repaired, or it might be like my Corsica and let go with just enough warning to limp the rest of the way home and do irreparable harm in the process.

Tip – the INSTANT you notice any loss of power, PULL OVER!!! That is how my Corsica went. I had to push it since I was far from home with no phones for miles, and it cost me the entire engine, making it cheaper to replace the entire car. Even then, you will need luck; I don’t know if those last 10 miles killed my car or whether it was already fucked, but either way, I would rather you learn from my fail than to repeat my mistake.

If the temp gauge goes up into overheat territory, pull over within the next couple of miles, but power loss is worth stopping in the left lane of the interstate.

tedd's avatar

I wouldn’t suggest driving it, but you theoretically could. It’s a ticking time bomb though, and every mile you put on it with that leak is shortening the lifespan of the engine overall.

If you’re going to drive it, only use it for important reasons, and turn it off as quickly as possible when you’re done.

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